Patience Mususa’s article “Topping Up: Life Amidst Hardship and Death on the Copperbelt,” has been selected by the editors of African Studies, a journal published by Routledge, as one of the top ten articles of the last three years.

Mining towns on the Copperbelt

Cities are emerging where minerals are extracted. But who is planning them and how will people make a livelihood when mines are no longer profitable and have to lay off workers? This is what NAI researcher Patience Mususa is examining in the Zambian Copperbelt.

Copper has been mined in Zambia since the early 1900s. When the world became electrified, the demand for copper soared, since it is used as a conductive metal in cables and wires. Mining towns emerged, and as in other places where one occupation dominates, the mining company became the central focus for the residents.

Sense of belonging

“Back then, mining companies had a long-term engagement and a holistic approach. There were health programmes for employees and the companies also invested in after-hours’ social activities, such as a pub for the miners, or golf or tennis facilities. These created a sense of belonging and a distinct identity among miners”, Mususa remarks.

Soon after Zambia's independence in 1964, mining companies were nationalised. However, this did not change the structure of company towns. Mining companies were still the centre of most activities for people living in the towns. Major changes however, came in the 1990s. After years of low copper prices, and growing national debt, the mines were sold to private investors. At that time, privatisation was also the leading International Monetary Fund and World Bank discourse, and was seen as the only way for Africa to catch up and develop.

Subcontracted workers

Even though there was a copper boom from about 2004, the heyday for miners never returned. The owners of the private mining companies had little interest in providing for workers’ social lives, and activities not contributing to profit were often abandoned. Nowadays too, a significant number of workers are either subcontracted or on temporary contracts.

“The companies argue that since they pay taxes to the government, the state is responsible for social infrastructure and welfare. However, they never fail to complain about taxes when copper prices fall. The paradox is that companies also need support from the state, to access land for mining activity, employee housing, storage of equipment. They also need infrastructure for transportation and energy. So mining companies need public assistance too, but are reluctant in turn to give back”, Mususa points out.

Need alternative livelihoods

Her research probes who is planning for mining communities and how, in particular for public facilities and social services given the reluctance of mining companies to do so, and that local authorities lack the necessary capacity.

“People have to fend for themselves. Unlike previous periods of hardship, when miners often returned to their villages, people now stay in or near the towns. They have to find alternative livelihoods, like growing crops or raising chickens in their backyards”, Mususa says.

Expectations of serious mining

With the rush to privatise in the 1990s, mining companies with a long-term commitment have gone. As soon as a mine is no longer sufficiently profitable, it is sold to another private investor or placed under care and maintenance. This creates uncertainty for the municipality, which never knows how much it can and should invest in urban planning. Likewise, traditional leaders don’t know what will happen to the land they made available to the company in the expectation of employment for their people. What happens when suddenly there is a new company owner?

“People still have expectations of serious mining companies to make long-term and substantial investments. Consequently, people were disappointed for example when a Chinese mining company made only a modest investment in the housing for its director. It appeared to residents as if he didn’t intend to stay long”, Mususa remarks.

Just another occupation

All these changes in recent decades have had implications for the identity of mine workers. Previously, a job on the mines was something definite and the future was assured.

“Now it is only one of many occupations a person must pursue to survive. People no longer solely identify themselves as miners: mining is just something one does”, Mususa concludes.

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